The study of place, like that of time, often involves hovering, as if suspended, in a borderland. Here even indirect observation eventually leads to ‘local invention’: just how and why is there becoming here, here becoming us, and then becoming now? In The Auxiliary Project Space, a warehouse in the buffer-zone between central Middlesbrough and the area where the town was born, Liam Slevin, artist and co-director of The Auxiliary, has sensitively curated Field Study, a group show of six artists based in Britain and Ireland. Each of them shares a rigorous approach to uncovering how place and people evolve over time, drawing on physical landscapes as archives and signposts of identity, activity and imagination.
Rosanne Robertson’s ‘Interior’ (2018) hangs at the threshold of the warehouse, powerfully forming what is clearly new space, where materiality and body awareness are upended. Relying only on nylon cord for support, its pierced red bricks form an uneven ‘sculptural ceiling’, as if an inhabitant from the future has reinterpreted ancient building plans to suit urgent needs. Additionally, it speaks strongly of the precariousness and doubt of present times. In this way, entrance to the exhibition space is disrupted, but whether by hesitating or rushing in, there is no choice but to move beneath it. ‘Interior’ builds on Robertson’s research into the fluidity and plurality of gender indentities, and mines the primal landscape of her childhood home in Sunderland. Directly referencing her father’s daily work in construction, the sound of bricks touching each other when moved is surprisingly light and musical: a small pile of broken bricks lies against wall in testament to the artist performing the work into being during the exhibition preview
Moving into the body of the warehouse, transitional spaces are also examined in ‘Death In Geological Time’ (2018), a video and sculptural installation by Amanda Rice. Rice dislocates and remakes ideas of life, truth and power by contrasting two approaches to death rites. The sculptural objects are casts from a cave used as an Irish Neolithic burial site and are tilted like rock strata under pressure. When the screen of the video behind them turns black, it resembles them. The video itself is of the LifeGem Labs, Chicago, where the ashes of the dead are currently made into diamonds. Interspersed with film of this process, is a voiceover with subtitles — ‘their second coming’ ‘modern-day alchemists’ ‘a diamond is forever’ — perhaps an interview or a sales pitch. True or false? What does it mean to miniaturise the dead, to actually wear them? How does it compare to travelling along a dark, ritual passage between ourselves and those who have gone before? Where does power lay in these behaviours?
Nearby, an explosion depicted on an oil painting by Kirsty Harris seems to have alarmed Rice’s sculptures and they flee on their spindly legs. Harris’s work, ‘Charlie’ (2017), has its beginnings in the film archives of Nevada’s former nuclear sites, where tourists can now visit places where weapons of mass destruction were once tested. The painting seems at first to resemble a traditional ‘sublime’ landscape work, with a distant ridge of mountains fringing a desert plain, but while clearly dealing with issues of scale, awe and power, that is no beautifully rendered cumulous in the sky but the horror of a mushroom cloud. ‘Charlie’ was titled after the code-name of the first televised broadcast of an atomic bomb blast in 1942. Drawing on quantitative data, Harris’ layered research tells us that the total area of the painting depicts the total yield of the explosion. The unstretched linen lends Charlie the qualities of a vintage wall chart and it is possible to imagine a nuclear physicist pointing out phases of the test to open-mouthed observers.
‘The Iron Hospital’ (2013), an etched lino-cut print from Fiona Kelly’s Unusable Monuments series, hangs on the opposite wall. It is not a large work and yet its formal New Topographics’ aesthetic gifts it with a scale and meaning that exceeds its size: it is unmonumentally monumental. The work shows the metal skeleton of a single Le Corbusier-like building, reeking of the brief myth of the Modernism project, and of unknown future potentials. In the distance lie the tiny telegraph poles of a town and in the foreground a road travels on, without traffic or people. The buff coloured paper and curved top corners of the print resemble the mounts of old photo albums, perhaps indicating that the building is abandoned and awaiting demolition rather than construction. The cubes of its geometry could equally be that of an office block, school or carpark in any town or city, and the looser mark making of the midground suggests that nature is reclaiming the man-made wasteland, creating a watchful garden around Sleeping Beauty’s palace.
Laura Harrington’s practice researches the human relationship to landscape through ideas of ‘upstream consciousness’, focusing literally and metaphorically on travelling to places where rivers rise, where land is largely left to its own devices, and where life balances ‘in-between’ birth and death. These harsh, less-favoured areas (LFAs), such as the bogs of Upper Teesdale, are not frequently used or even visited due to their inaccessibility, and therefore offer Harrington a fresh source of geomorphic material which shares concerns more commonly held by naturalists and geographers. Harrington’s large prints show flat land, bleak and seemingly deserted: it carries a stark beauty. Thin trees with lost bark and few leaves appear to survive, and in the distance there may be a plantation, perhaps indicating human activity. The prints thread a horizon along the longest wall in the warehouse, and the artist has linked them with bold brushstrokes of paint or ink. One, a closeup of vegetation and water, pulls the wall down onto the floor, indicating how the surface of the place was formed.
Conversely, Mark Peter Wright’s video at The Auxiliary is part of a larger body of field work based at South Gare at the mouth of the river Tees as it runs into the North Sea, and less than eight miles as the crow flies from the exhibition space. The video pivots around a turning point, anchoring the viewer in place, and this three hundred and sixty panning of the area takes in the big skies and low tussocky grass that seems timeless: sounds are at first unidentified. The steel works comes into view, as do the more recent and distant offshore wind turbines, and the context of the noises becomes apparent — the hum, jangle and occasional roar of industry, together with the call of birds. While Wright is fascinated by listening ‘beyond the human’, the presence of a lone male figure moving through the landscape fascinates, as the turning repeats. Sometimes approaching or retreating, sometimes merely a shadow, sometimes standing or sitting and watching, appearing in a mirror placed in the landscape, he at last walks towards the camera. The figure triggers thoughts of the man-made nature of the Gare itself, of what went before and what might come after, and of future sounds and silences.
Field Study successfully navigates spatial and temporal borders to arrive at emerging sets of possibilities for further creative study, and as Liam Slevin is also a co-director of the upcoming annual Middlesbrough Art Weekender (26-28 September 2019 in venues throughout the town), these possibilities will soon be extended. Together with MIMA, The Auxiliary currently has a Northeast Open Call for artists to take part in this ‘town takeover’.
Field Study (Laura Harrington, Rosanne Robertson, Mark Peter Wright, Amanda Rice, Fiona Kelly, Kirsty Harris), The Auxiliary, Middlesbrough, 4 – 28 July 2019.
Annie O’Donnell is an artist based on Teesside.